There's no doubt that the Phils are red-hot after Nationals free-agent-to-be Alfonso Soriano. Though I instinctively recoil from the idea of spending upwards of $16 million a year for at least five years on a 31 year-old who's posted an on-base percentage over .338 just once in his career, the fact that this happened in 2006--at the same time the guy set or neared career highs in a bunch of other offensive categories--does make me wonder a little bit.
Soriano more than doubled his walks from 2005 to 2006, drawing 67 free passes this past season to 33 in each of the previous two years while his at-bat totals were only slightly higher (647, to 637 and 608). 16 of those walks were intentional, but Soriano nonetheless raised both his walk rate and his pitches seen per plate appearance--to 3.9 last year, from 3.65 in both 2005 and 2004.
What prompted these improvements? Are they sustainable?
A look at Soriano's best comparables from Baseball-Reference doesn't give particular cause for optimism. His top comp through age 30, Howard Johnson, was a reasonably patient hitter--but Johnson's walk rate was always pretty good. The next guy is Tony Batista, a notorious hacker; Matt Williams, comp number 3, wasn't much better.
A bit further down the list, though, you get Jeff Kent. In his age 30 season, Kent cracked the .350-OBP mark for the first time, in a year when he went .297/.359/.555. Over eight seasons since then, Kent's had an OBP of lower than .366 just twice, and none lower than .348; he's also hit 207 home runs. I think the Phils would take that kind of production from Soriano for as long as they had him.
But perhaps the ultimate example of a player who discovered patience in mid-career is Sammy Sosa. In his age-29 season, Sosa raised his walks from 45 to 73, and won an MVP award for his troubles. (The 66 home runs and 158 RBI helped too.) In fact, Sosa upped his walk total each year from 1996 (when he drew just 34) through 2001, topping out at 116 bases on balls that year.
So it can be done. In Sosa's case, I remember he had a hitting coach who stayed on him constantly about working counts. I don't know offhand what pushed Kent to start drawing walks in mid-career. As for Soriano, I'd love to know if his greater patience came primarily as a result of coaching, his own conception of the ideal approach to batting leadoff (although in 98 at-bats leading off for the Rangers in 2005, he drew just 4 walks), or something else.
The answer could determine whether he's worth as much as the Phillies--or some other team--are evidently willing to pay him.